Letter to Future Fellows
Dear Future ISTR Fellows,
Congratulations! In getting this far, you are doing so much right. Know that every experience leading to this moment offers you invaluable perspective to bring to your school. They are lucky to have you, just as you are lucky to have them. But as you enter this world, one which few understand until they live in it, you need to work to examine your school’s history and context to better situate your roles across campus and the voice you will take. Even as you experience frustrations, situating your positionality within a historically framed understanding of school and mission will help you navigate potentially complicated relationships and empower you to bring about the change you desire in your classroom.
My first piece of advice starts with listening before you speak. You are entering an insular world that has been around so long as to run itself, with traditions marking every turn. As these celebrated traditions often seem to stand upon fraught ground, ask people about these traditions to get a sense of how your school is reckoning with its past. Before you speak, see where the conversation presently sits regarding the dismantling of threads of privilege and racism that have embedded within the walls of these ancient schools. Realize both the school’s need and capacity for change before you enter the conversation so as to situate your place within the conversation. Listen for an opportunity to speak – in my experience, it came after I watched Gilman’s hillbilly portrayal of its rival McDonogh. Picking up the frustrations and rage of colleagues, I had a chance to create a dialogue with my classes in the days that followed. Shamus Khan argues that “interrupting the cultural production of privilege requires intentional efforts on the part of educators to confront and transform lessons students learn about their place in the world and their relations with others” (2011, p. 228). Be incredibly intentional with this important work. Change will not happen on its own. But remember as you arrive, you are just one person in a long history, and the school likely has a tendency to protect its self. You will be best able to interrupt and redirect the privilege and other issues from the school’s history once you understand the institutional context and earn the trust of your colleagues and students by listening first.
As you get a sense for the institution, look closely at the lived experiences of the people within it, especially the students and faculty who do not fit the institutional norm. Listen to them as you gauge where best to help. The concept that stuck with me the first year was Peter Cookson Jr.’s 1991 argument about “outsiders within.” Here, he spoke about African American students that are welcomed into an institution but are unwittingly compelled to give up an element of themselves to fit in. These students become “caught between two cultures and, in this sense, doubly marginalized” (p. 220). Try to unearth the hidden curriculum that causes those schisms, and in your teaching root out the systemic injustices that serve certain students more than others. Look at how you assess, how you design your classroom, even at policies for printed homework. When I saw one student piling up late homeworks, I looked for a root cause, and found that he neither had a printer at home, nor could arrive at school in time to print. Knowing he might not speak up for himself in a potentially awkward situation, I went to him, and built a more humane policy. Generally, these schools are working actively to better their inclusive rhetoric with respect to race in particular. Henry Smyth, the headmaster of Gilman School, told Sarah Lloyd and me in our research for the history of Gilman assignment that this school, like most others in the program, is aspiring for much more than diversity. “To me,” he told us, when social and cultural identifiers cannot predict success, “that’s a truly equitable community so you don’t look around and say ‘well, he’s African-American, so this is gonna be his outcome.’” But at the same time, there are many blind spots. As a person with a disability that includes life-threatening food allergies, I connected with my students and faculty who too felt marginalized by the way the dining staff treated us. Though sharing personal experience can be complicated, I found the response by students to my story to be hugely encouraging. They want an equitable community as much as we do. To get there, we must be listen to each other's experiences and look for what is being missed in the road to eliminating systemic injustices.
As you have these conversations and design lessons to educate your students on potentially contentious issues, my advice is to work within the context of mission. As you read about your school’s history to situate its present state, note any changes in the mission statement that can signal shifts in institutional priorities. Where is the school now in its rhetoric? Look too at statements of diversity, at the titles of administrators and the names of departments. Drink in the language being used to understand the place. Use that information primarily to fit what you hope to accomplish within the school’s priorities. Often, teachers think there is more oversight than there is, especially when teaching contentious issues. They choose not to address what needs to be addressed in fear of retribution from administrators who they think do not want the pot stirred. Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson note that “novice teachers, especially, express surprise when they hear about veteran instructors who openly discuss divisive public questions with their students” (2017, p. 6). So I urge you to take chances – to not let that fear stop the necessary education of your students when you see it fit. For Gilman, each tough conversation could nourish a boy’s “spirit.” To protect yourself though, and to make these discussions feel authentic to the curriculum, frame them within the school mission. For instance, ask students what about a particular tradition is antithetical to those words which we see festooned on our walls. Use “we” rather than “you,” both claiming your space within the institution but also highlighting you are not merely trying to criticize their often beloved traditions. If you keep these discussions framed within the mission, you can protect yourself from parent complaints and begin to effect real change. In teaching in a time of contention, authenticity is the only way forward, for anything less will expose you to a lack of personal satisfaction that will far outweigh the stability that can come with doing nothing.
I feel it is important that I remind you that there will be difficult moments. A student will say something offensive in your class after you had worked hard to establish a culture of inclusion. The administration will choose to protect itself and its history over an individual’s needs. You will see students burdened by immense anxiety as they navigate the intricate social system on top of their demanding workload. You will have moments when you feel like you failed. But remember that change does not happen at a school overnight. Simply speaking up for a student, even if nothing comes of it, can help in more subtle ways too. Students want to feel affirmed and supported, and showing them you are willing to do that can build vital trust. The glacial pace of change at the institution will frustrate you. But student learning does not get restricted to that timeline. Remember that. Even when the school is lagging behind where you want it to be, your classroom can move beyond that.
On a broader level, in all spaces, be it in readings, other classrooms, or even in the hallways where a unique type of learning most occurs, look not for yourself, but who you aspire to be. And look too for who you aspire not to be. In The Secret Lives of Teachers, the protagonist was exactly who I did not want to be. He focused on appearance, deferred to politics instead of maintaining his authentic self, and in one terrible interaction for me to read personally, let a student with disability become a target, standing still in inaction. Even as I felt repulsed at times reading the book, I learned from his writing what I wanted to be. At one point, he mentions his jealousy of excellent educators, ones who can make lasting impressions, who “tease, scold, cajole, even touch students and have it seem natural, and they can self-disclose with unselfconscious ease.” In this particular description, I saw the description of who I aspired to be - a teacher so authentically himself with kids. I was really intentional about my hallway interactions with every boy, including the 200 or so whom I didn’t teach. Whether with a high-five, a nickname, a pat on the back, I could build a rapport in that one-second interaction that would serve me later. When I needed to connect with that kid, I seemed more genuine, and they felt they knew me well-enough to trust me. You may not want to be that teacher, and that too is okay. We are not all the same. So my advice is listen. Read. Watch other teachers. Find an example or description of who you want to be, noting all of what you seek not to be too. Use these lessons from history to guide your understandings of your school and your understandings of yourself.
Be intentional with your non-classroom interactions
You are empowered to effect change by working in an independent institution, even as you also are working within a school that can tend to be rooted more in its insular traditions. To maximize your ability to make a difference in the lives of these kids, listen first to gauge where the institution is in these discussions so as not to trample on too many toes, which could minimize your potential impact. But after that period of listening, push on from there to serve your students the way you best see fit within the scope of mission. As long as you align your methods with the goals of the institution, and speak up for the silent and marginalized, you have immense opportunities to change lives with your work. Good luck.
Ethan McGinnis Faust
Anonymous. (2015). The Secret Lives of Teachers. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Cookson, Jr., P. W. & Persell, C. H. (1991). Race and class in America’s preparatory boarding schools: African Americans as the “outsiders within.” The Journal of Negro Education, 60(2), 219-228.
Khan, S. (2011). Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Zimmerman, J., & Robertson, E. (2017). The case for contentious curricula. The Atlantic. 1-7.